Restructuring for the social enterprise Part 1: Lessons from the games industry

I read a recent article in Edge Magazine about Valve and their success with Half-Life 2. Apart from being a complete geek and gamer, the pieces in the article that sparked my interest were the fact that Valve don’t apply job descriptions internally and they created the “Cabal process” for redesigning the original Half-Life concept.

Now strange as it seems, the Wiki definition of Cabal is far more sinister than how Valve put it to work. In fact, over ten years ago, while we were all fuddling about drawing process maps to the nth degree here we have the Gaming Industry version of Social enterprise restructuring and internal collaboration in action in 1999 !

“The first few months of the Cabal process were somewhat nerve wracking for those outside the process. It wasn’t clear that egos could be suppressed enough to get anything done, or that a vision of the game filtered through a large number of people would be anything other than bland. As it turned out, the opposite was true; the people involved were tired of working in isolation and were energized by the collaborative process, and the resulting designs had a consistent level of polish and depth that hadn’t been seen before.

Internally, once the success of the Cabal process was obvious, mini-Cabals were formed to come up with answers to a variety of design problems. These mini-Cabals would typically include people most effected by the decision, as well as try to include people completely outside the problem being addressed in order to keep a fresh perspective on things. We also kept membership in the initial Cabal somewhat flexible and we quickly started to rotate people through the process every month or so, always including a few people from the last time, and always making sure we had a cross section of the company. This helped to prevent burn out, and ensured that everyone involved in the process had experience using the results of Cabal decisions.”

What was interesting was that when they created the Cabal Process they threw out job descriptions because they found them too constraining (and couldn’t hire externally the people they required because of them).

“Instead, we would create our own ideal by combining the strengths of a cross section of the company, putting them together in a group we called the “Cabal.”

This concept supports my own ideas about losing traditional hierarchical structures in an organisation and using community models instead.

Read the full article, whether you’re a gamer or not, because it’s an eye opening parallel. But more importantly it’s been proven to work and shows that we are in fact latecomers to the Social scene.

And so I’ll keep banging this drum until someone gets it: Social Enterprise is something that goes beyond wikis, chat channels and collaborative software.
I’ve already talked about losing hierarchy and adopting networked communities of workers, and have uncovered research in this area before in the late 80′s on Lateral Communication. More recently though I was fascinated to read that in software development ‘social’ has already been happening for many years and proven to work.

When Valve created Half-Life they adopted the Cabal, which according to Gabe Newell, President and owner of Valve Software, stated “the people involved were tired of working in isolation and were energized by the collaborative process, and the resulting designs had a consistent level of polish and depth that hadn’t been seen before.”

I decided to get in touch with Gabe directly following the last blog entry and find out his own opinions on hierarchy vs network organisational models.

“The simple answer is that hierarchy is good for repeatability and measurability, whereas self-organizing networks are better at invention,” Gabe said, “There are a lot of side effects and consequences. The lack of titles (roles) is primarily an internal signaling tool.”

 “The alternate answer is that organizations that think they are hierarchical actually don’t gain advantage by it (they actually have hidden networks), and that the hierarchical appearance is the result of rent-seeking.”

So can we not design and define an enterprise on the same principles and see the same effect but on a much grander scale ? Is there a half-way house where both ideals can co-exist until we are ready to throw the shackles away for good ?

4 responses to “Restructuring for the social enterprise Part 1: Lessons from the games industry

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